Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Comments on DOE Questionable Contracts and Fair Student Funding formula

Leonie Haimson and Patrick Sullivan of the Citizens Contracts Oversight Committee provided the following comments to the members of the Panel for Educational Policy about the proposed contracts to be voted on April 20, 2016. If you want to join our Overight committee, please email us at info@classsizematters.org. If you would like to send in your own comments, please do so tonight by the public comment deadline at 6:00 pm.

April 19, 2016
Dear Chancellor Farina and members of the Panel for Education Policy:
On behalf of Class Size Matters, the Citizens Contract Oversight Committee, and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, we have the following concerns about the proposed contracts and the Fair Student Funding formula to be voted on tomorrow night, April 20, 2016:
The Amazon contract
DOE proposes to pay $30 Million to Amazon over three years to provide digital textbooks and tradebooks. The ultimate plan, according to the RA, is to provide 29%-42% of all content online by Year 5 at a cost of up to $64.5 million.
·         Yet there is no cost/benefit analysis in the RA discussion of the proposed contract, including the huge cost of having to purchase tablets or laptops for all the students who will access their assigned readings through digital devices.  The contract also implies that some students will use “a school-provided device or a personal device to access their profile and content,” Yet latter which cannot be relied upon given the fact that many families cannot afford to supply a suitable e-reader for their children to use at home.
·         The RA also proposes that students will “request content for independent reading” via Amazon, which implies that the DOE will be steering students’ personal purchases to this provider, which will allow Amazon to further expand their market share.  Yet many authors and publishers have protested the way in which Amazon uses their dominance of the market to engage in  illegal monopolistic practices, which goes unmentioned in the RA.
·         The DOE omits any discussion of the growing research showing that reading comprehension and retention are significantly reduced with the use of digital devices compared to actual books.  Here's just one of several recent studies on this critical issue.

·         Finally there are the privacy concerns, which are insufficiently addressed in the RA:

“Despite this technology’s capacity for track and reporting student progress, students’ personal identifiable information will be safeguarded in this system, as Amazon will use a DOE-provided proxy with encrypted information and limited student information.”

It is unclear what “limited student information” is going to be included, but in any case, many parents are not just worried about potential breaches, but about teachers and administrators tracking students at school and at home, and what will be done with their personal data.

For more on some of the concerns with the Amazon contract, as yet unexplored by DOE, see today’s Wall Street Journal.

Contracts with Special Education providers

The DOE proposes to award contracts to pay seven special education vendors who have engaged in fraud in the past or who have failed to pay Workman’s compensation and thus are barred from public work contracts.  We strongly believe that any company that has engaged in fraud or failed to properly follow the law should be barred from future DOE contracts for at least five (5) years.

We are also concerned that the DOE admits that “background checks have not been completed for all vendors…Should noteworthy information become known to the DOE after the Panel meeting, it will be reported to the Panel.” 

No contract should be approved without a background check, and there is no point in reporting it to Panel members once negative information is found.  

The fact that the DOE would even consider proposing contracts for companies to provide services to special needs students, a highly vulnerable population, without conducting any background checks, only reaffirms our conviction that there is insufficient care and due diligence maintained by DOE officials to minimize risk to children, fraud and waste. 
More evidence of the insufficient care shown by DOE is shown below in the section below headed “Reimbursing the Fund for Public Schools for PreK vendors found “non-responsible”.
An article about these highly questionable special education contracts was published in yesterday’s Daily News here

Whole School Reform
DOE seeks funding for a vendor, Southern Regional Education Board, who has provided these services in the past and whose expertise with NYC schools has been previously questioned.  It is regrettable that the new proposed contract is presented without any accounting for how the vendor has performed in the past.
Pre-K providers
DOE continues the unacceptable practice of proposing to award many pre-K contracts without providing any information in advance on the vendors or their backgrounds and history (see items #3-5 on pages 49- 51 and #24-25 on pages 109-110,)  This again is risky and irresponsible.
Professional development contracts
We are concerned about the proliferation of professional development contracts.  This month there are seven PD contracts, items #7-11, #16 and #19, at a total cost of $14,697,447 or $8,050,447 annually.  Including these, there have been a total 36 PD contracts since October 2015, costing over $27 million annually, or $98 million over the course of these contracts. 

Nearly half of these contracts are proposed to provide training aligned to the Common Core standards, even though the State Education Department is now planning to revamp the standards. 

Retroactive contracts
DOE also continues its unacceptable practice of asking the PEP to approve retroactive contracts after the funds have already been presumably spent.  This month, there are nine proposed retroactive contracts: items #2, 16-20, 26-28.
Reimbursing Fund for Public Schools the City of New York for PreK vendors found “non-responsible”  [Update: wrote the wrong Fund here}
Serious concerns are prompted in the information found in the Addenda (page 132).  Many pre-K providers were approved by the PEP in July 2014, despite the fact that their background checks were not complete.
Three providers were subsequently found to have engaged in fraud or other illegal behavior, including B’Above Worldwide Institute, FootSteps Child Care Inc., and West Harlem Community Organization Inc.
Church Avenue Day Care did not file NYC corporate taxes for 2010-2014.  While this transgression would normally disqualify a vendor (categorize them as "non-responsible"), the DOE decided to pay the firm anyway with private funds raised by the Fund for the Public Schools City of New York.  The documents now make clear the firm hasn't corrected the issue.  But the DOE wants now to reimburse the Fund for Public Schools for its payments to this vendor.
The DOE also proposes to reimburse the Fund for Public Schools the City of NY for it payments to another preK vendor, Footsteps Childcare Inc. despite the fact that earlier audits from the NYS Comptroller had found this vendor had engaged in “systematic abuse of child care grants awarded by the NYS Office of Children and Family Services, including evidence that funds…had been misappropriated to defraud the State.”
A third vendor, B’Above Worldwide Institute, exhibited unspecified “performance and contract compliance issues” during the 2014-2015 school year.  Despite the fact that the vendor was offered the “opportunity to show cause why it should not be found non-responsible,” B’Above failed to do so.  Now the DOE wants to pay back the Fund for Public Schools the City of NY for the “bridge loan” that the Fund had provided the vendor.
Panel members should oppose these reimbursements.  Moreover, the DOE's practices of using a private fundraising entity to fund questionable vendors, presumably because they had been barred from receiving city funds, should immediately cease.
These examples provide more evidence of unacceptably sloppy and risky contracting practices on the part of DOE, and why no contract should be approved by the PEP for vendors whose background checks have not been completed.
Fair student funding
While in FY 2008, schools were provided with 100% on average of their Fair Student funding, this year the average is only at 89% and if the mayor’s proposed budget is adopted, next year this figure will rise to only 91% — reflecting a 9 percent cut to our schools since 2007.  Moreover, the Mayor’s proposed budget does not project any increase in Fair student funding in the out years.
In many cases, the overall use of the Fair student Funding formula has forced class sizes upwards, or forced principals to choose between retaining their experienced teachers or keeping class sizes at acceptable levels.  
In addition, as Class Size Matters discussed in testimony before the City Council last month, the specific formula being proposed is unsupported by logic or research.
·         The smallest amount of funding is allocated to students in grades K-5, where the investment in smaller classes has huge pay-offs in terms of increased student achievement. 
·         More funding on the level of 8 percent is allocated for students in grades 6-8, an additional 3 percent for high school students, and 40-50 percent additional funding for remedial services as a student falls behind, starting in 4th grade. 
·         Yet as many studies indicate, remediation is  far less effective than prevention,  which  ensures that students do not fall behind in the first place, especially in the form of smaller classes in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.
·         The FSF weights are far greater for special needs students if they are assigned to inclusion classes starting in Kindergarten, (with a weight of 2.09) and in grades 1-12 (with a weight of 1.74), though the class sizes in these ICT classes are generally far too large to provide students with the individual attention they need.
·         The failure of DOE’s inclusion program, caused in large part by the excessive class sizes of ICT classes, is something we hear constantly from parents of special needs students. 
·         This is further evidenced by the fact that since the fall of 2012, there have been sharp increases in the numbers of students recommended for special education services, as well as the number of students attending non-public schools at city expense, according to the Mayor’s Management report.
·         Total special education enrollment in grades K12 has increased by 25 percent in four years since the inclusion initiative began in earnest in 2012, at a huge expense to the city.  The increase in the number of students identified as having special needs is yet another indication of the hidden cost of rising class sizes, especially as class size reduction has been shown to significantly reduce the number of students identified as requiring special services.

Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director, Class Size Matters and co-chair, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

Patrick Sullivan on behalf of the Citizens Contract Oversight Committee

1 comment:

TeachmyclassMrMayor(andyoutooMrMulgrew) said...

And you guys went through the whole issue of Amazon & tablets, without mentioning L.A. and John Deasy. I'm not able to resist the low hanging fruit, like you guys were.